Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

A Student in Beijing


Thousands of bicycles. Ubiquitous laundry lines. Hard beds and squat toilets. Metal meal tins. White bureaucratic slips of paper with red stamps--all assaulted by dust from the Gobi desert and a coal-induced haze. Many Western students go into culture shock when they arrive at China's premiere university. But everyone quickly adjusts, realizing just how much we take for granted back home.

I'm two months into a year of study arranged by the Harvard-Yenching Institute at Beijing Daxue, dubbed "Beida." Beida has kept the English moniker Peking University even though China's capital hasn't officially been known as Peking since 1949. Located in the northwest corner of Beijing, near the old imperial summer palace, the campus is a hodgepodge of traditional Chinese architectural elegance, a post-World War II communist functional aesthetic, and a sleek late-century development spree. There are manmade lakes surrounded by willows, lotuses, and pagodas.

Beida students have played a key role in notable political movements throughout modern Chinese history--most recently in 1989. But at the turn of the century, the roughly 10,000 undergraduates and another 10,000 graduate students at the 101-year-old university seem more concerned with learning English and economics than they are with furthering any political agenda. During the first week, dozens of two-by-three-foot, full-color posters, complete with photo captions and brief biographical sketches, went up on campus, one for each of the highest-scoring students in the entrance examinations.

For Beida students, gaining entrance to the Communist Party represents joining a hybrid of Phi Beta Kappa and a final club. Selection is based on academics and achievements; members are rewarded with networking and guanxi (pronounced gwan-shi; it means "personal relations") potential down the line. But actual communist theory plays only a slight role in the intellectual development of young communist leaders. When asked what goes on in Party youth meetings, a classmate of mine said, "Discuss Deng thought," and rolled her eyes.

My major is international relations--an academic hemisphere away from the applied math of my undergraduate degree. Switching between disparate majors is unusual in China, where high-school students are firmly tracked down either a humanities (wen ke) or quantitative (li ke) path. Within Beida's rigid structure, even interdisciplinary study remains largely an alien concept: a political-science student must clear bureaucratic hurdles to take a relevant class in the history department. Students are assigned their majors before they arrive, based on their preferences in conjunction with their performance on nationwide entrance examinations.

Those in the same department in the same year take almost all their courses together in one large traveling class. Rooming arrangements are done by department and are assigned for all four years. Social activities and extracurriculars are arranged by department as well. On the one hand, this promotes a strong sense of camaraderie among those who share interests, a contrast to my undergraduate concentration, which lacked any sense of cohesiveness or identity among students. On the other hand, the cross-fertilization of different interests among students, which Harvard lauds in its brochures, finds less fruitful ground.

Humanities and social-science classes are run very differently than in the States. Reading, when and if assigned, is light and done at leisure. Like Harvard, lectures range from the stimulating to the mediocre to the incomprehensible, but they are the key to success. Sections are basically nonexistent--but so are ultralarge lectures, because even the largest majors have 120 students per year. Tests come straight from the lecture notes, so if you miss class, you simply photocopy your roommates' notes.

The professor in my American government, economics, and diplomacy class--about 100 students--is female, young, and sharp; she just spent a year at the Kennedy School doing research. She lectures. Sometimes she asks questions. Most students diligently take notes. The classroom is spartan--concrete and wood. Everyone keeps plastic containers of tea or boiled water on their desks to drink.

Classes start at 8 a.m. and run two to three hours with breaks, as opposed to Harvard's 53 to 83 minutes. From personal experience, students start losing focus around the third hour and put their heads down on the tables to sleep. Everyone breaks for lunch between noon and 2 p.m.

A standard student load is about seven classes (each one usually meeting three or four hours a week); those who exert themselves (usually that means taking fashionable economics electives) take 10. Students may also take general electives, open to all disciplines; they include subjects like American movie appreciation, Chinese folk dancing, and calligraphy.

Since there isn't much homework, most of the studying done revolves around the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the Graduate Record Examination. Studying abroad is the Holy Grail for almost all students, from physics to law, and high standardized test scores are a key way to distinguish yourself from the thousands of other Chinese students who apply to graduate school in the States every year. Every day, in the back of lecture halls, students quietly memorize vocabulary lists of words like insouciant, malingerer, and avatar.

Chinese students at Beida, whose tuition and board cost from about $250 to more than $300 depending on the major (more competitive majors cost more), live six to a room, so desks are shared like almost everything else; the only bit of private space most students have is their 20 square feet of bed, which they enclose with colorful curtains. Those of us from abroad are housed separately; my roommate is from Korea, and our hallmates come from all over the world. We pay $1,500 for tuition, and from $3.50 to $20 a night for our rooms. Most students wash laundry by hand; they bathe in the communal bath house, located in the center of campus, at the cost of 1 renmenbi (about 12 cents) per shower. (If you take more than 32 showers a semester, the cost rises to 4 renmenbi, so most students take only one or two showers a week.)

Registration is done by hand with paper and pen--no cute red bubble sheets from the registrar--but technologically, Beida has a firm stance in the digital age. Because direct phone lines were installed only recently, many students carry pagers and cell phones. Almost everyone has e-mail. At the library there are dozens of computers with fast Internet access and Chinese Microsoft Windows. As on almost all computers in China, news sites such as and are blocked.

One last discovery by a self-confessed klutz: the greatest peril found at Beida, but missing at Harvard, is the domino effect of toppling parked bicycles. My record so far is knocking over 10 in a row. It took five minutes to set them all upright again.

Correspondent Jennifer 8. Lee '98, one of this magazine's Ledecky Undergraduate Fellows last year, e-mailed this dispatch from Beijing.